Review author Asher Fulero is an accomplished keyboard player out of Portland, Oregon playing in a handful of bands. Check out this demo of him tickling the virtual ivories with Pianoteq 2.
As a lifelong piano player, I've played and performed on pretty much everything from the worst out-of-tune pianos to opulent 9-foot Steinways. With the advent of powerful computer-based software instruments over the past few years, the market for high-quality acoustic piano simulation has flooded. These virtual instruments bank on intensive sampling in an attempt to relinquish the need for pianos that can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the expensive mics and preamps for recording them. The downsides, however, can be a serious drain on your computer's resources and lack of playability onstage. One example is that the acoustic piano included with Ableton Live 6's Essential Instrument Collection sounds great, but with a sample bank of 3.5 GB, actually playing it live becomes next to impossible. It's so CPU-intensive that my Apple MacBook Pro 2.33 GHz Intel Core Duo with 2 GB of RAM can't handle more than about 10 notes of polyphony at maximum latency settings, which isn't very usable onstage.
Modartt has approached the acoustic piano in a different way; rather than using a massive bank of multisamples, the company modeled a rich and detailed emulation and an ingenious sample engine that can fine-tune a very small sample bank on the fly. By carefully analyzing the minutia of how an acoustic piano creates its unique sound, Modartt created Pianoteq — an entirely playable acoustic piano simulator with impressively rich and realistic tone.
I tested the stand-alone and VST/Audio Unit versions of Pianoteq on my MacBook Pro, using a Clavia Nord Stage 88 as a MIDI controller. Installation was a quick matter of downloading the program and entering a license code. While the plug-in version worked fine the first time, I spent the most time testing the stand-alone version of Pianoteq because it operated at slightly lower latency than running it through a host DAW. Even operating at a 192 kHz sampling rate, it had no trouble with 128-note polyphony at very low latency.
THAT REAL SOUND
The first thing I noticed about Pianoteq was how detailed — almost delicate — the tone was. This is no “digital piano”; every important real piano element, from hammer and damper noise to string inconsistencies, has been worked into this complex sound. The included presets give a good idea what Pianoteq can do: Jazz, Rock, Classical, Honkytonk, Tack Pianos and basically any other classic acoustic piano offshoot, as well as outlandish variations and impossible creations. The Mellow C2 preset was quite convincing as a studio grand, and the Jazz and Rock presets sported well-customized tuning and filter settings for each genre's respective idiomatic sounds.
The stand-alone application features a built-in MIDI recorder and player that works nicely. Simply press Record and start playing; when you're finished, you can playback the performance while you tweak knobs. A tiny graphical representation of the current MIDI clip helps keep your place, and a simple metronome offers a bpm setting and on/off switch. Menu options allow importing and exporting MIDI files (as well as a useful Recent MIDI Files option), and you can also export your MIDI performance using the current parameters as a WAV audio file.
Pianoteq's main window divides horizontally; the top half provides access to all of the physical parameters of the piano model in three sections: Tuning, Voicing and Design. Each section has a photo to describe its function; simply click on the photo, and it will descend, revealing the knobs and sliders underneath. Clicking on the small arrow makes the photos ascend again, hiding the parameters for a less complicated view. These carefully detailed sculpting sections impressed me with how deep they explore the nitty-gritty of acoustic piano sound analysis.
The powerful Tuning section offers the Diapason (the traditional tuning center — A above Middle C) setting, which allows the tonal center of the piano to move slightly up or down, with temperaments including Equal, Pythagore, Zarlino, Mesotonic, Well-Tempered and Werckmeister III. The Microtuning button has many more available microtuned temperaments, including MeanTone Scales, Wendy Carlos' Re-Measured scales, 15th- to 17th-century tunings, Balinese Pelogs, Indian Gamuts and Shrutis, as well as the ability to import tunings and apply them across several preset or custom key mappings. The Unison Width setting allows for slight tuning variations between the three strings for any given note, and the Octave Stretching setting will add a few cents to each octave; both are controlled via a slider for precise setting. Also, the closer a note's three strings are in tuning value, the sooner the note's sound will reach its decay point; the Direct Sound Duration slider allows control over this timing.
The middle Voicing section allows detailed control of the size, shape and elasticity of the modeled piano's hammers. The top three sliders control hammer hardness, with separate settings for piano (MIDI Velocity 32), mezzo (Velocity 64) and forte (Velocity 90). This is an evolution from the traditional Velocity curve. Instead, you can adjust the actual tone at each section of the curve (a customizable Velocity curve is included as well). A graphical Spectrum Profile allows the eight main Harmonic Overtones to be balanced individually, almost like a Hammond organ's drawbars. Pianoteq makes note in several places that most acoustic piano manufacturers try for less of the seventh harmonic, and it seemed to work well to keep it low, but not completely out. The last three sliders offer control over Hammer Noise (which generally makes the piano seem closer as the slider moves up), Character (which gently randomizes the Spectrum Profile for natural to wild manipulations) and Soft Pedal (which adjusts how dramatically the soft pedal smooths the piano's tone).
The Design section gives you control over the shape and size of the modeled piano. The top three sliders — Impedance, Cutoff and Q — are devoted to manipulation of the soundboard (the vibrating wooden plate that transfers the string's vibrations). Impedance is a rather complicated concept that controls the speed at which the sound is transferred from string to soundboard. High impedance means sounds transfer slowly and will ring for longer, and a low setting means there is little resistance, so the string's sound is quickly transferred out from the soundboard, causing a shorter note length. The Cutoff and Q sliders control how the high overtones react; Cutoff controls where the high overtones begin to fade out, and Q controls how quickly they fade after that point. The remaining four sliders control Piano Size, Global Resonance, Sympathetic Resonance (press a few notes down slowly to trigger, and then hit a few other notes hard and staccato so the open strings will ring) and Quadratic Effect, a doubled-frequency wave that can be produced by very hard strikes. All those are parts of real acoustic piano sound, and while the mind may not pick them out of the tone individually, once they're included, it's hard to hear one without.
The bottom half of the Pianoteq window controls the modeled piano's space and holds a cool 2-D graphical curve designer. The separate curves for EQ (processed before computing the model) and Velocity can be powerful and also subtle, with dramatic results. There is a Master Volume slider, a Dynamics slider (for controlling the distance between the loudest and softest notes) and a Panning slider. A button switches between Mono, Stereo and Headphone-optimized outputs for practicing.
Four MIDI-controllable pedals include the usual Una Corda or Soft Pedal, which moves the hammers to the right so they strike only two of the note's three strings; Sostenuto, which sustains only those notes depressed before the pedal and allows the rest to stay short; and the all-important Sustain pedal, which can handle half-pedaling, as well as fourth- and 10th-pedaling. The fourth pedal is a unique Harmonic pedal that provides the same “dampers-off” resonance, except while the dampers are on — providing a more resonant, yet still staccato sound.
The Reverberation section contains 12 adjustable presets with three sliders for wet/dry, reverb length and room size — almost all of which sounded realistic and helped to place the piano. Lastly, the modeled piano's lid may be set to closed, half-open or fully open for different projection depending on the listener position (reverb preset).
As a bonus, Pianoteq customers can also download four add-ons of antique pianoforte instruments.
I was sure when I saw the download size of only 12 MB for the Mac version (or 8 MB for the PC version) that this would be another fake-sounding piano ready to come and go like so many others. But even my experienced and exacting piano ears and fingers were pleased with Pianoteq's interactivity and sound quality. It's the first nonhardware acoustic piano I've been able to play at truly full polyphony, even on my speedy MacBook Pro. Modartt really took the time to fine-tune its algorithms, and that paid off in spades. Pianoteq is quite possibly the best-sounding software piano I've heard, and its functionality and CPU-saving approach only seals the deal. Skeptical pianists should look closely.
For exclusive Pianoteq 2 audio clips, go toremixmag.com.
PIANOTEQ 2 > €249
Pros: Great sound. Ultra-geeky detail control. Extremely low CPU usage.
Cons: No surround output yet. Interface could be sleeker.
Mac: 1 GHz; 128 MB RAM; OS 10.3.9 or later
PC: 1 GHz; 128 MB RAM; Windows XP/2000/Vista